Saturday, January 14, 2012

Toffee!

Now that we've all had a little time to recover from the sugar-shock of the winter holidays, let's talk about candy. Specifically, toffee. I first had a variation of this toffee when a co-worker brought it in to a staff meeting. Hooray for buttery, sugary goodness during the holidays -- or something like that.

Toffees are made by boiling sugar (or molasses, apparently) with butter. The version presented here is akin to English toffee -- which according to my research pretty much just means that it uses almonds. The sugar-mixture needs to reach "hard crack" stage for hard toffees, which is what this recipe creates. This means getting the heat up to about 300-310 degrees Fahrenheit, so please be careful when you make this recipe. It needs attention, a lot of stirring (or more effectively, whisking), and precision. However, I label it "easy" because it doesn't take long and it's pretty forgiving if you err on the side of not getting it hot enough. If you scorch your sugar, I can't help you as much.

My version actually doesn't use almonds because almonds aren't very much in my budget -- and because I'd rather just eat the almonds I happen up (my current bag of almonds was a generous gift) than toss them into toffee. That being said, I've made this now with cashews "bits and pieces" as the store calls the cheaper cashews (cashew brittle style) and peanuts (very much like peanut butter), as well as chocolate covered. I also add vanilla, which the original recipe doesn't call for, mostly because I love the smell of butter cooking with vanilla and it adds just a hint of flavor at the end.

Let me tell you about my toffee "oops!" that happened with the last batch I made, specifically to send to a friend. I haven't been able to find my candy thermometer, even though I'm pretty sure it moved with me. And I don't have a different type of food thermometer. That means I have to eye-ball the confection getting to the right temperature. Fortunately, I've made candies before  and successfully made this toffee twice without thermometer. Unfortunately, I felt rushed and impatient. I didn't let enough of the water boil off or allow the temperature to climb quite high enough. The result? Even after the toffee sat in the freezer for several hours while I played frisbee with a friend, it didn't get hard. I felt grumpy.

I broke the toffee into bits and threw it back in my pan with just a sprinkle of water to encourage it to dissolve, then heated it slowly (medium heat) until it melted entirely before turning the heat back up to medium-high and stirring often as it bubbled furiously at me. The toffee bits had already been coated in chocolate, but this didn't seem have a negative effect. The next time I spread it on my cookie sheet and stuck it in the freezer, voila! I had hard toffee, just like I wanted--even if it did look a bit dark from the chocolate that also got stirred in.

So, the moral of that story: if it's under-cooked after you freeze it, just melt it and cook it again. The toffee would have been fine if I wanted soft, slightly-grainy pralines you so often find in certain parts of the southwest -- but wouldn't ship as well.

Since I don't keep corn syrup around, I used agave nectar. You could also use Lyle's Golden Syrup or honey.

Toffee Brittle
1 cup sugar
3 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon agave nectar
1/2 pound butter
1/4 teaspoon salt

Optional
5 ounces slivered almonds, OR
3/4 cup peanuts, cashews, or other nut/seed
Chocolate (about 2 ounces)

In a heavy-bottomed, medium-sized saucepan, over medium-high heat, combine sugar, butter, vanilla, water, and salt. Stir frequently until everything has melted and the sugar has dissolved. As the mixture begins to bubble and rise within the confines of the pan, switch to a whisk if you have one (this will pop more of the bubbles) and whisk rapidly until the mixture begins to thicken, darken, and pull away from the sides of the pan*. Stir in the nuts, if using, and leave on heat, continuing to stir for another 1-3 minutes. You want the mixture moderately thick.

Pour onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and smooth with the back of a spoon or spatula. Break up bits of chocolate and drop them on top, if using. They should melt pretty quickly**. Place baking sheet in freezer and allow to freeze until hard, about one hour. Remove from freezer, and (carefully) break toffee into bits using your hands. Store in an air-tight container.

*If you have a candy thermometer, stick it in as you're just starting to melt everything together and adjust it so that it does not touch the bottom of the pan. When the thermometer reaches just below 300 degrees, add the nuts.


**Hershey's candy bar melts really well, but -- it's Hershey's. I used Hershey's kisses twice because E had so many around the house from Christmas, but the last time I made it, I topped it with an organic FT dark chocolate. It didn't melt as well, but worked fine.
Toffee with Chocolate & Peanuts

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